Wednesday, June 15, 2011

SFF Review: A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

A Separation, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, earlier this year became the first Iranian film to win the Golden Bear at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival. It also picked up Silver Bears for its wonderful ensemble cast. This compelling masterpiece, though relatively subtle and simple in its plot development, reveals stunning complexity in its portrayal of morality, class, gender and religion amidst the social, political, legal and psychological context of contemporary Iran. This is the best film I have seen so far this year.


As members of the upper middle class, and having been married for fourteen years, Nader (Peiman Ma'adi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are on the verge of separation on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. The opening scene is an incredible single take as the couple plead the reasoning behind their divorce request to a judge presiding off camera. With the troubling social conditions prevailing, they have both acquired visas to emigrate from Iran.

Simin is anxious to ensure a better future for their bright ten-year-old daughter Termeh, but Nader refuses to leave his elderly father, who lives with the family and suffers from Alzheimer's Disease. With Nader firmly against leaving Iran, Simin files for a divorce, but the judge refuses to formalise their separation. Even from this opening scene you are certain that there will be powerful and gripping performances and emotionally resonating drama to follow. Heightened tension is built entirely through the dialogic exchanges between these wonderful actors.

Simin departs the family home to stay with her mother, and leaves the stubborn Nader to contract the services of a housekeeper. Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a deeply religious and impoverished woman with a volatile, depressed and out-of-work husband, is assigned by Simin. Razieh has accepted this work without the approval of Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), which is necessary according to tradition. She brings her four-year-old daughter with her to Nader's apartment where she tends to household duties and tries to take care of Nader's father. As we are intricately revealed over the period of a couple of days, Razieh struggles to take care of the sick old man and is visibly labouring from the strenuous commute to the job and the stress it causes her.


Nader returns home one day with his daughter to find the door locked, his father alone and tied to the bed, and money missing. Fearing that his father is dead, Nader returns him to consciousness, but is full of rage when Razieh is insufficiently able to explain why she had left, the reason for her negligence towards his father's health, and the missing money. Nader's fury, which involves throwing Razieh out of the apartment, leads to unexpected and devastating consequences for both families. Nader faces a murder charge from Razieh and Hodjat, who claim that he was responsible for the death of their unborn child.

Firstly, A Separation has a mechanically perfect screenplay. Infused with a subtle distinction between cause and effect, Farhadi is committed to building this world and allowing us to find comfort, before presenting us one shocking revelation after another. We at first feel sympathetic towards Razieh because of her burden of looking after Nader's father. We believe briefly that she may be a thief, only to be jolted into a state of sorrow at the news of the loss of her child. While we feel terrible about that, we know, from what has transpired, that it is not Nader's fault either. It's a roller coaster of emotions and an extraordinary examination of an individual's struggle with personal ethics and loyalty in opposition to telling the truth and accepting responsibility. The outstanding performances lead us through a number of intense, heated and volatile exchanges that question the truth, faith, honour, class and fault.


A Separation is an indictment of the Iranian justice system from a director who clearly has strong opinions on the matter. But there is also some very serious class divisions and religious discrimination prevalent in this society. The film juggles all of these conflicts as these two families try and find peace after these devastating consequences. The system is horrendous, with evidence to be brought before a single judge, with the individuals or parties involved instructed to relay their case. If their story is disputed by their accusers (standing next to them in a small room), they are asked to find a witness to correlate their testimony. There is every possibility that witnesses can unite and collaborate stories, and be persuaded by threats. It is what causes this cyclical struggle, and the indefinite possibility that Nader will be found responsible. Destined to be a classic of Iranian cinema, A Separation is a knockout and should be at the top of your 'must see' list.

My Rating: 5 Stars (A)

14 comments:

  1. What .... the ..... hell?

    You're seeing some good stuff my man.

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  2. Oh man. Tell me about it. I have seen one below average film so far and that was 'Three' by Tom Tykwer. Everything else has been commendable or superb. I saw Project Nim, then this (same day!). Dude, you have to find time to go to a Festival. I'm aiming for Toronto next year. Be there! Haha.

    I'm not going to review Tree of Life until I see it again...so like, the 30th.

    But tomorrow i'll post my review of Win Win, which I thought was a delight.

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  3. If I attended Toronto ... that would be so fun.

    Shit. That sounds good - I'd force you to go to every film. No time for sleep.

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  4. Three in a row is about as much as is healthy. Perhaps 'Three' suffered the brunt of my exhaustion haha. So, you can't see everything. But, we should still go, man!

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  5. Man, I saw this in my latest issue of Sight and Sound and so want to see it. Glad you loved it so much, as even though it sounded amazing anyway, it has shot up my Must Sees.

    I can't remember what time it comes out in the UK (sometime this month, I think), but I need to hurry up and find out. Like now.

    Great review!

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  6. Thanks Cherokee!

    It slipped under my radar a little bit. On the morning of the screening I realised that it had won the Golden Bear, and why I had selected it as one of the films I would see. Haha.

    It's unforgettable. The performances are amazing!

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts when I gets a release.

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  7. Thanks , Great !

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  8. What makes this movie so special is the way it puts its character in challenge between honesty and having to lie to survive in difficult conditions. When the film proceeds to the end you find there is no bad or evil character here. All nice people in the film tell a small lie which almost every body does in every day life, but the movie shows how it can end to such a miserable situations not easily can be managed. You feel very close to characters when they just to want to keep their life of their beloved in balance by continuing to lie, even if in normal situation just blame others dishonesty.

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  9. Absolutely. Telling the truth is a huge part of the drama. Nearly all of the characters are asked to tell the truth in front of the judge, and then lie. This is a big deal for Razieh, because of her religion, and Termeh, because she is forced into a criminal activity out of love and loyalty to her father. I had no idea that the film would become what it does, but it makes for compelling viewing.

    Thanks so much for the comment Mehdi.

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  10. I am excited about seeing this movie -- it sounds amazing. Unfortunately we won't see it here in the U.S. until December, if at all. Thank you for the thoughtful, well crafted review. I'll add you to my feed reader to remind me to keep coming back. :)

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  11. Steph, I'm sure it will get a pretty wide release, considering the acclaim it is receiving. It is quite extraordinary. It won the Golden Bear, it won the Sydney Film Festival Jury Prize and was voted by the viewers as the top feature film of the Melbourne International Film Festival. It is sitting at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I have not read any negative responses (from critics or filmgoers) about this film. I can't wait to see it again. Thanks for stopping by, and for the kind words. Look forward to hearing from you again :-)

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  12. I am inclined to toss out middle eastern films but I found the seperation to be a gem. I am glad I did give in to my wife's pleading to watch this film .

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  13. @ Jake - It's an amazing film. So glad I added it to my SFF lineup!

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  14. Dear Andy,
    Thanks for your excellent review. It is a tribute to Farhadi's skill as a film maker that his 'simple' story is being appreciated world-wide and across a wide political spectrum; acclaimed in main-stream western media at the same time as Iranian pro-government circles, both of which subscribe to the dictum 'if you are not with us, you are against us'.
    In spite of the apolitical appearance of the movie, most Iranian and some western informed viewers sense in-there some metaphors of a political nature. A major one is explained here.
    In the opening scene, Nader says he does not want to leave Iran for many reasons and when challenged by Simin to name one, he mentions his father's need for care and sympathy in the state he is in. To Simin this seems like an excuse. Nader, a man whose honesty and integrity is confirmed, should be seeking a better future for his family in the West, rather than stay behind, helping a father whose situation is hopeless because of Alzheimer's. Then, as the argument builds up, we finally hear laud and clear the ‘Two World Views' :
    Simin (Modern)- Does your father any longer know you are his son?
    Nader (Patriotic)- But I know he is my father!
    The sick father, who no longer knows him but needs his love, his care and his protection so dearly and cannot be left behind in such a state, is of course IRAN!
    This interpretation is confirmed when Nader accuses Simin, in a later scene, that she has always been weak and tried to escape when conditions get tough, whereas one has to stand up and face the challenges ahead,.........sanctions or worse!
    In the opening scene we observe that the question of leaving IRAN or staying there, under the given CIRCUMSTANCES, is such an important issue that is tearing up an otherwise successful marriage. Well now, what are the reasons for leaving? Simin comes out clearly; to escape from 'CIRCUMSTANCES' in Iran for hopefully better life opportunities in the West. So, little fear of Iranian censors there. But, what are the reasons for not leaving? Here we hear from Nader that there are a thousand. Simin challenges him to name one. And when Nader mentions his demented father, she retorts that this is only an excuse! Yet the director chooses to spend the next two hours of our time, and God knows how much of his own, to take us through what is at best one reason among many, and at worst only an excuse! This makes sense only if this reason, the father with Alzheimer's, is construed by the director to symbolize the way Nader (Farhadi) connects to IRAN and its present predicament. His country, though partially forgetful of his sons, does need him and people like him. Here he is wise to hide from both censors! The Iranian censors do not mind the dissatisfied leaving, and the main-stream western media revels in this. On the other hand, both may consider patriots a nuisance, who are out of tune with their Weltanschauung.
    Recently Farhadi was asked if he plans to leave Iran for good. His answer was a categorical No! His reason basically being that if politicians running IRAN (and for that matter America) are narrow minded and do not recognize the contribution that film makers like him are making towards enriching the cultural scene and bridging over the divide, then he feels even more compelled to stay in Iran, where he can best work, face the challenges and fulfill his duty towards his people. Is this not what Nader tells Simin in the opening scene of the movie, albeit in a language that could pass both censors, Thus:
    Simin - Does your Father know, anymore, you are his son?
    Nader - But I know He is my Father!
    In other words, responsibility lies with the side who knows!

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